The Articles of Confederation, active from March 1, 1781, to June 21, 1788 was the first constitution established in the New World. The articles were drafted by the British colonists in order to help unify the 13 colonies under a common government. This document expressed the form of government the early Americans used until June 21, 1788 when the present constitution was drafted. The articles came out of a need for the colonies to unite after being freed from British rule, and in this need, the articles were effective in putting into words the colonists’ desire to establish a centralized government. Unfortunately, through the colonists’ desires to establish a centralized government that was nothing like that of the government imposed on them in England by the King, a central government without sufficient power to govern effectively was created. Along with this major weakness, many other weaknesses followed. The government’s lack of power rendered it unable to regulate trade and levy taxes to the colonies. Finally, a unanimous approval was required to pass laws, leaving the ability to change or to pass laws at the mercy of one state when all twelve other states agreed.
First of all, the governments inability to regulate trade was a huge problem. The states, without any government regulation, were free to set their own taxes on goods. There was not a set tax on certain goods; taxes on the same goods were different in every state. This inflated state of taxes, fluctuating from state to state, made interstate commerce very expensive. Tariff wars resulted when one state would raise its taxes after getting mad at other states for having high taxes on goods. As a result, interstate commerce almost completely diminished as tax inflation became too high for trade to flourish. Interstate commerce was furthermore hampered by the existence of different currencies in every state. Trade became very tough and risky because the value of dollars fluctuated exponentially with the increase in tax. In other words, the value of monetary units was determined by the tax rates in every individual state.
Another major weakness to come as a result of not being granted a sufficient amount of power to be able to effectively govern over the states was that the government had no powers of enforcement. Because of this, each state had to defend itself. The new nation was unable to repel the encroachments of the British on the borders set by the
Treaty of Paris. The encroachments came as a result of the states not paying the requested taxes to the British. The Spanish similarly encroached unobstructed on the southern borders of the United States because there was not a single, unified effort brought together by the centralized government. Consequently, the state militiamen were no match for a trained army, and the states soon began to realize that they must unite together more strongly or they would risk ending up back under someone else’s control.
Finally, the requirements of a unanimous vote to change or pass laws, and a majority to make decisions that have to do with the welfare of all 13 colonies, collectively, was a major weakness of the Articles of Confederation. In the Articles, the number “9” is mentioned in several places, serving to be the minimum requirement by which states needed to agree to declaring war, admitting new states, and other decisions where the participation of the majority of the states was needed to make them. However, the number “9” ran into some problems. Every time a new state would be added, it would throw off the majority. Each time a new state was admitted into the union, approval of decisions would require the approval of more than just nine states. Furthermore, letting more states into the union meant more complications with getting a unanimous vote on laws trying to get passed or changed. Because every state wanted to look out for its own members first and foremost, every law presented to the states would benefit some and hurt others. Consequently, several attempts to change the Articles prior to the adoption of the Constitution had been hampered by one state’s refusal to ratify.
The Articles of Confederation had many flaws that kept this constitution from unifying a large amount of people under certain ideals and tenets. The colonists had good intentions in drafting this first, largely experimental constitution, but its application proved too troublesome for many reasons. The colonists, anxious to form a new government but wanting to get away from the kind of government that favored a strong centralization of power, created such as weak central government that it created more problems than it solved. However, as much as the Articles of Confederation were a failure, so also were they a success in providing a solid base from which all other constitutions have sprung forth, including the current constitution that has governed us for over 210 years.
Flaws in the Articles of Confederation